About Me

My Photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

A postscript on Troy Newman and the freedom to express extreme ideas

This is cross-posted on the Talking Philosophy site.

I have a post over at Cogito about the debacle with extreme anti-abortion campaigner Troy Newman, who has been excluded from visiting Australia. This is a quick postscript.

At the time I wrote the post, Newman had managed to get here despite not having a valid visa, but he has since failed in an attempt to stay in Australia by way of an urgent hearing in the High Court. I wasn't expecting the court to be sympathetic to him once he took the law into his own hands and managed to circumvent the system to fly here. But up to that point, he had evidently complied with all requirements. His original visa was evidently legally obtained, and there was no obvious reason to find any fault with the process up to then.

The High Court's decision doesn't yet seem to have been published anywhere online, so it's difficult at this stage to be sure of Justice Nettle's exact reasoning. Going on media reports, however, the main point appears to have been that Newman had not come to the court with "clean hands", in that he had flouted the law in deliberately flying and arriving without a visa. That seems fair enough - I'm not critical of the court for deciding the case on that basis.

It also seems that he has been given a further opportunity to appeal (from the US) against the decision to revoke his visa. If he succeeds, he'll be able to come here in the future. But his actions over the last few days may be seen as weakening whatever case he originally had.

In my view - which the court also seems to have stated - he did originally have an arguable case to have his visa reinstated. I.e. he had a case, leaving aside his behaviour in coming to Australia unlawfully. But that may now be moot.

This situation is troubling for me in the sense that Newman's views are, as far as I'm concerned, anathema. He is exactly the kind of extreme, theocratic moralist that I can't stand and have spent much of my life opposing. But it does not follow that he should be prevented from speaking in Australia merely because he might put extreme political views such as that abortion should be a capital crime. Preposterous as that view may be, it is legal to express it.

It's troubling, then, because I find myself, if I am intellectually honest, forced to defend the rights of someone whose views I detest. But that is what comes with being a liberal in the tradition of John Stuart Mill. It will happen from time to time, and we must accept it.

Leaving aside his actual views on prohibiting abortion, there is other dirt on Newman in that he made highly provocative statements in 2003 in protesting against the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill. I'm a bit more sympathetic to keeping him out for those statements, which countenanced the murder of abortion providers. Still, nothing that is publicly known seems to suggest that Newman was going to promote violence on his visit to Australia. If there's something that has not been revealed - e.g. some evidence that he actually was intending to incite or promote violence - it needs to be explained properly to the public to put the matter at rest.

Meanwhile, much of the reasoning being offered in the mainstream and social media for his exclusion is simply along the lines that he was planning to express extreme views about what the law should be in relation to abortion.

Well, however much I hate those views, it is, once again, legal to express them in Australia, and it should be. Indeed, it is political speech: exactly the sort of speech that most merits protection, as the High Court has ruled in the past. The claim that such views should not be permitted public expression is nakedly authoritarian, and it's a disappointing, disturbing trend that so many people on the Left - traditionally the party of individual liberty and free speech - now seem to believe that we should be using the state's coercive power to suppress unwanted political views.

Again, if the government has enough dirt on Newman and his plans to put an acceptable case for cancelling his visa and  keeping him out, so be it. Let the public know the situation. But my liberal principles require me to insist that he not be prevented from coming here to speak merely, or even primarily, because he holds extreme political opinions on what should be the law relating to abortion.

What has become shockingly clear to me - more than ever in the last few days - is how few people on the Left really support basic liberal principles. I'm appalled by this. I have to say, yet again: Freedom of speech is not just freedom for people to  express ideas that we agree with or consider innocuous. If we're going to have a society in which freedom of speech is generally accepted, it will include freedom to express views that are nasty, ugly, and wrong.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reposting from 2009 - Geert Wilders wins UK appeal

I'm reposting this from several years ago.

So much time has passed that it would be miraculous if my views had not changed in the slightest - in particular, re the comments on Stein, I am now less comfortable about disinvitations than I once was. Stein's case was fairly special, though, or, rather, I think there is something special about inviting people not merely to give public lectures or take part in debates, but to be commencement or graduation speakers.

In any event, I believe that much of what I say here is still about right. It's also very relevant to some current debates in Australia.


Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders has won an appeal against the decision of the British Government to exclude him from the country.

While the ruling in Wilders' favour, made by an immigration tribunal, can still be appealed by the British government, this outcome is, for now, an important victory for freedom of speech.

The government's decision, made early this year, was under 2006 regulations that allow the exclusion of individuals who represent:

A genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat affecting one of the fundamental interests of society.

However, in overturning the government's decision, the tribunal emphasised that the right of freedom of expression was important in a democratic society, even though opinions were expressed in a way that was bound to cause offence. The tribunal said:

Substantial evidence of actual harm would be needed before it would be proper for a government to prevent the expression and discussion of matters that might form the opinions of legislators, policy makers and voters.

As I've said in the past, I doubt that I would like Wilders if I knew him. If he had political power in the Netherlands, he would likely follow extreme and highly undesirable policies. But the immigration tribunal got this case right. Wilders should not be barred from entering liberal democracies such as the UK.

Public authorities bear a very heavy burden of proof before they interfere with the liberties of individuals on the ground of things that the individuals have said. Technically, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right, but that is simplistic under contemporary conditions. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel to other countries for peaceful purposes such as putting our views on a range of issues, and provided we have complied with all the immigration formalities.

Yes, Wilders' film, Fitna, does tend to invite hostile attitudes to Islam by juxtaposing verses from the Koran with images relating to acts of terrorism and incitements to violence against infidels and apostates. Wilders has also made other public statements that are likely to provoke hostility and cause offence. It's even possible, I suppose, that somebody might be inspired by Wilders' statements and/or by seeing Fitna to take direct violent action against Muslims. However, I do not believe that Fitna - ambiguous as it is - calls for this or that Wilders has done so elsewhere. Fitna may provoke some generalised hostility, but there is no call for any specific violent act or any class of violent acts.

Millian liberals might ask themselves whether the sorts of principles advocated in On Liberty would justify suppression of Fitna or other attempts to gag Wilders (including the recent efforts to keep him out of the UK). I doubt it.

On a Millian approach, the state would be justified in stopping Geert Wilders from addressing an angry mob and stirring it up to lynch nearby Muslims. But it would not be justified in preventing him from putting his views peacefully to the general population (this includes giving a lecture of the usual kind which is not directed at inciting a riot or a lynching).

In the first case, there's no time to respond to the situation other than by stopping him and dispersing the lynch mob. The state needs to have laws to deal with these situations. In the other case, Wilders' views may be wrong or even dangerous, but they can always be argued against. Individuals who see Fitna, or read about Wilders' ideas, or attend his speeches or lectures are not likely to be caught up in the mentality of a mob. Any individuals who just might be inspired to lawlessness can be deterred in the same way as other individuals who are inspired to lawlessness by anything else that might have the same effect. Thus, this whole situation is remote from the kind of circumstance where Mill would countenance the use of state coercion to stop someone's free speech.

I'm not suggesting that there can never be cases that where the risk of violence is sufficiently high and imminent to justify some kind of coercive action by the state. But Wilders has been in the UK before without stirring up lynchings or riots. He has also spoken in the US - even after he was barred from the UK - and has not stirred up violence. I see no evidence that he has ever crossed the line into the kind of clear incitement that should be cognisable by the law.

Let's be clear: if someone invited Wilders to be, say, a commencement speaker at a university, that might be a poor decision, and we might have very good reason to protest to the university administration, as many of us did when such an invitation was extended to Ben Stein not very long ago. No one has any legitimate expectation of being granted a great privilege of that kind. People who have the power to extend a prestigious platform to highly-divisive (or worse) speakers ought to consider how their power could be put to better use. But that does not entail that the state should interfere. I'd be just as quick to defend Stein as I am to defend Wilders, if an attempt were made to exclude him from entry into a foreign country.

When the state starts to prosecute someone for what they've said, or when it tries to keep someone out of the country for nothing more than that, it needs compelling justification. If there is any ambiguity, we should lean towards freedom of speech.

Monday, September 28, 2015

University of Warwick Students' Union backs down over Namazie veto

In some good news, the University of Warwick Students' Union appears to have backed down unequivocally over its earlier decision to no-platform Maryam Namazie. They have indicated in their statement that they'll be apologising to her.

As far as I'm aware, we can take this at face value. That being so, the people who made the latest decision deserve to be commended.

There are more general questions about the circumstances in which it's okay to disinvite or veto (or no-platform) speakers. I'm leaning very heavily against doing so, though there will be extreme situations, and as I've often said I am not an absolutist about such issues. However, the Namazie case illustrates yet again how well-intentioned rules and restrictions can soon become overly broad, and even perverse, in their application by zealots.

Sometimes bad decisions can be reversed, as happened here, but not everyone has the time, energy, resources, and support for the fight.

It's best to subject restrictions such as these to careful and sceptical scrutiny when they are proposed in the first place. It's best, too, to have a bias toward very narrow application of such rules, once they're in place, restricting them as far as possible to extreme, unusual circumstances.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Maryam Namazie no-platformed at the University of Warwick

Maryam Namazie makes an essential point at the end of her chapter in 50 Voices of Disbelief (the book that I co-edited with Udo Schuklenk, published in 2009). It is, she insists, crucially important that we be free to criticise and ridicule religion, including Islam, and particularly political Islam:
Offensive or not, Islam and political Islam must be open to all forms of criticism and ridicule, particularly in this day and age. Not a second passes without some atrocity being committed by this movement. It hangs people from cranes and lamp posts, it stones people to death—in the twenty-first century—with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used; it murders girls in cold blood at their school gates. It must be criticized and ridiculed because that is very often all that a resisting population has to oppose it. That is how, throughout history, reaction has been pushed back and citizens protected. And so it must again.
This is the sort of view that has apparently led to Namazie being no-platformed by the student body at the University of Warwick. But we must be free to put such views.

Maryam Namazie should be able to speak without impediment. She has an important viewpoint that warrants expression and discussion.

More generally, no-platformings and disinvitations have become a plague (and an embarrassment) at universities. Can they ever be justified? Yes, I can think of circumstances where they might be. I'm not an absolutist about this. I can think of one case, several years ago, where I supported a campaign for a disinvitation, and I can't work up too much guilt about it. I.e. it wasn't a bad call in the circumstances applying back then.

But in the social and political environment of 2015, when the whole business of no-platforming and "disinvitation season" has become such a problem, I would be unwilling to muddy the waters and support a disinvitation except if the most exceptional and extreme situation arose (e.g. someone blatantly inciting acts of violence). The priority right now is pretty much - just stop doing this.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Updates to my website and curriculum vitae

I've been updating my personal website, which was overdue for some love and care. Do feel free to check it out, including all the links. There are some good samples of my work on the site, as you'll see. There's also extensive (though incomplete) bibliographical information.

In particular, I've revised and updated my curriculum vitae for anybody who might be interested.